In 1991, with the Gulf War kicking into high gear, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. seemed an unlikely face for the United States military’s bold new campaign in the Middle East. Though his reputation was marred by the accidental death of American soldiers under his command in Vietnam and a botched invasion of Grenada in 1983, few people pioneered the steamrolling of the free and independent press more than “Stormin’ Norman.” As Newsday’s Michele Ingrassia put it, the career soldier was transformed in no time by the Pentagon “from mere general to genuine sex symbol faster than a speeding smart bomb.”
But Schwarzkopf wasn’t just a media darling. He was also a master media manipulator. “Schwarzkopf (Jr.) was a genius who corralled the media,” John MacArthur, Harper’s publisher and author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda that in the 1991 Gulf War, recently told Poynter of how the general pioneered the controlled press engagements that have become commonplace for government organs looking to freeze out the press:
Instead of press conferences, he did straight P.R. into the TV camera, over the head of journalists…. Speaking over the reporters. He didn’t even have reporters in the room. At least in the Saudi Arabia press center, the reporters assembled and, after he read his press statement into the camera, a few were allowed to ask a question.
Now, 25 years after Schwarzkopf reduced Gulf War correspondents to “the level of stenographers,” that “corralling” of the media has reached its logical conclusion—with Donald Trump’s war against the Washington Post.
In the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando on Sunday, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate thanked his fans for “congrats” and called for the re-consideration of his ban on Muslim immigrants (the shooter, Omar Mateen, was an American citizen of Afghan descent). Trump followed his disquieting opportunism with another salvo of opprobrium Monday morning in an appearance on Fox & Friends, where he seemed to imply that President Barack Obama was somehow sympathetic to (or connected to) the weekend’s terrorist attack:
He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable…. I’ve been right about a lot of things. I don’t want congratulations. What I want them to do is be tough and vigilant, our government. Look guys, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or has something else in mind. And the something else in mind — people can’t believe it. People cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.
Later that day, Trump delivered a foreign policy address littered with lies and inaccuracies about Mateen and the (still vague) causes of the Orlando terror attack, reiterating his insinuation that the Obama administration was somehow responsible for the attack:
We’ve tried it President Obama’s way. Doesn’t work. He gave the world his apology tour. We got ISIS. And many other problems in return. That’s what we got.
A politician saying obscene things to fire up his base? Inconceivable! Here’s where things really get out of control: Following his address, Trump unceremoniously revoked the Post’s press credentials in retaliation for an article headlined “Donald Trump Seems to Connect President Obama to Orlando Shooting.”
“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” Trump wrote in a statement on Facebook, adding the Post to an increasingly large list of organizations blacklisted by the campaign, alongside the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico, and Univision, among others. This wasn’t enough for the Trump campaign, though, which took things one step further and alleged that the same paper that broke the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories was acting solely based on the business interests of owner Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.
While the Trump campaign’s disgust with journalists and the media is nothing new, the fact that the rebuke of the Post appeared on Facebook carries with it a bit of Schwarzkopfian symbolism. Where the general spoke over the heads of Gulf journalists and fed Pentagon talking points directly to the American people, Trump has reminded the political press that, with his mastery of social media, they have no real power over his campaign.
Trump is, at his core, a masterful entertainer, and his steady stream of seemingly inchoate barbs is more meticulous than we realize.
There is precedent for how Trump is utilizing social media as a direct avenue to reach voters. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin built a digital fiefdom of acolytes through a massive Facebook following that allowed her to bypass the nefarious filters of the mainstream media in the aftermath of her failed campaign with Senator John McCain in 2008. Once lauded as an authentic bridge between elected officials and their constituents, social media has always fundamentally been one of the most efficient avenues of propaganda of the modern era, a tool that helps dictators as much as it does political protesters. It’s the ultimate vehicle by which a candidate like Trump can not only spread his own misinformation around a national tragedy, but humiliate and rebuke the traditional gatekeepers of institutional truth (the press) in the service of his own narrative of insurgency.
The fixation with access and embrace of conventional wisdom under the sheen of “political junkie”-ness have long plagued the Beltway press corp, but the economics of modern media have made it especially easy to bully the free and independent press. By funneling his sociopolitical talking points through Twitter and Facebook, Trump guarantees national press coverage without having to deal with the pesky fact-checking operation that generally accompanies major newspapers and cable networks. Trump is, at his core, a masterful entertainer, and his steady stream of seemingly inchoate barbs is more meticulous than we realize; even Stephen Colbert and Bill O’Reilly agreed Monday evening that the candidate was “making a political tool out of a terror attack.”
Part of this is structural within the Fourth Estate itself. The American news business is still in a period of serious upheaval and retrenchment, where digital jobs and strategies continue to devour traditional print operations. Consider the horrifying spectacle of Hillary Clinton’s order to Trump to “delete your account” after Obama endorsed her for the Democratic nomination. A single moment strategically geared for virality dominated the political news cycle for a full day, sucking oxygen away from any actual analysis of the Democratic primary race.
And not even the Post is immune from these forces. While Post editor Marty Baron rebuked Trump’s attack on the paper as “a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press,” it won’t stop the Post from covering him “honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly,” as Baron put it. But the Post has made a history of granting far more coverage to Trump than the other candidates. As the University of Southern California’s Ev Boylepointed out in March, the Trump’s name appeared on the Post homepage 112 times in one week; Clinton’s name appeared only 13 times.
Trump knows that the media, with its insatiable appetite for content, will feast on table scraps — and every round of combat with news organizations only makes him stronger. His narrative of persecution and bias is fed by every fact check, even when he’s clearly wrong.
Trump has proven master of the modern political megaphone, and his campaign’s continued saliency is a stark reminder of how a single political brain can demolish the balancing force of a weakened press. As MacArthur wrote in Second Front, Schwarzkpof embodied “the media’s love of the military mind and demeanor” during the Gulf War, a ratings darling for the Big Three news networks who had suddenly found themselves competing with always-on CNN. It was Schwarzkpof’s natural talent for entertainment that gave him the perfect avenue to feed hungry reporters lies about Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal — and the military’s ability to destroy them with awesomely precise airstrikes — in an ongoing campaign of deception and manipulation.
Winston Churchill once said that “in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” That’s certainly been Trump’s guiding philosophy with the mainstream media.